Culbertson first responders see new urgency in installing carbon monoxide detectors

Wednesday, January 9, 2019
Culbertson fire chief Richard Sensel installs a carbon monoxide alarm in his welding shop in Culbertson. Sensel, his firefighters and EMT's are starting a movement to encourage the installation of CO alarms not only in homes but also in garages and shops following their response recently to an incident of CO poisoning inside a garage. "They could save a life," Sensel said. Culbertson village staff has also installed four CO alarms in their fire barn bays, ambulance bays and the two community rooms also in those two buildings; two alarms in the village shop and the museum in the same building; and in the city office.
Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Gazette

CULBERTSON, Neb. A lot of people lost a good friend to carbon monoxide poisoning recently. Culbertson Fire Chief Richard Sensel does not want that to ever happen again to anyone, and he doesn't want his EMT's and firefighters to ever have to respond again to a situation like one that claimed a rural resident in his shop.

Richard and his emergency staff want to see that carbon monoxide alarms are installed in every garage attached or detached and every workshop or steel building heated or not.

"People know to install carbon monoxide alarms in their homes," Richard said. "But installing them in garages and shops as well needs to be addressed. They could save lives."

McCook Fire Chief Marc Harpham agrees. "CO alarms are every bit as important as smoke detectors, especially for folks with propane heaters or wood-burning stoves in their shops and garages," Harpham said. "CO poisoning is so subtle, there is no detectable state until it's almost too late."

And, Richard adds, folks with cardiac and/or respiratory problems "are going to get into trouble deeper, faster." Children and pets are also at particular risk.

CO alarms are not cost prohibitive, Richard says. A CO alarm can warn of dangerous CO concentrations and if occupants will heed the warning save lives.

Carbon monoxide is called "the silent killer" because it is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-irritating gas that is produced by the incomplete burning/combustion of materials that contain carbon.

CO fumes are extremely hazardous and can cause sudden illness or death. If the early signs of CO poisoning are ignored, a person may lose consciousness and be unable to escape the danger and die.

When too much carbon monoxide is in the air you're breathing, your body replaces the oxygen in your red blood cells with carbon monoxide. This prevents oxygen from reaching your tissues and organs. At high levels or during continued exposure, CO can cause suffocation that results in loss of consciousness, brain damage or death.

CO poisoning

CO poisons the body primarily by preventing the body from getting the oxygen it needs. Once it's inhaled, carbon monoxide gas passes from your lungs into your bloodstream, where it attaches to the hemoglobin molecules that normally carry oxygen throughout the body. Oxygen can't travel on a hemoglobin molecule that already has carbon monoxide attached to it.

As exposure continues, the gas hijacks more and more hemoglobin molecules, and the blood gradually loses its ability to carry enough oxygen to meet your body's needs. Without enough oxygen, individual cells suffocate and die, especially in vital organs such as the brain and heart. Carbon monoxide also can act directly as a poison, interfering with cells' internal chemical reactions.

The lack of oxygen results in symptoms often mistakenly associated with flu. Depending on the air concentration of CO and how long the CO is breathed in, you can experience any of the following symptoms: headache, dizziness, nausea, weakness, loss of muscle control, shortness of breath, chest tightness, visual changes, sleepiness, fluttering of the heart, redness of the skin, confusion and mild behavioral effects such as slowed reaction time or altered driving and decision-making skills.

CO poisoning should be suspected if more than one member of the family is sick with the same symptoms at the same time and if those who are sick feel better after being away from the area for a period of time. (It usually takes several days for true flu symptoms to pass from person to person).

Exposure amounts

Without immediate treatment, you can lose consciousness, have a seizure, enter a coma and potentially die. Death can result from only a few minutes of exposure to higher concentrations or from an hour of exposure to lower levels.

If you are exposed to very low levels of carbon monoxide over a longer period (weeks or months), your symptoms can appear like the flu, with headache, fatigue, malaise (generally not feeling well) and sometimes nausea and vomiting.

People with long-term exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide also can have numbness, unexplained vision problems, sleep disturbances and impaired memory and concentration.

Because carbon monoxide poisoning can kill body cells, especially in the brain, there is a risk of long-term neurological problems in people who have had severe poisoning.

Sources of

CO poisoning

CO occurs when fuels containing carbon do not burn fully or are not vented properly. Household appliances, such as natural gas or propane gas fires, boilers, central heating systems, water heaters, cookers, barbecue grills and open fires which use gas, oil, coal and wood may be possible sources of CO gas fumes.

Any appliance or heat source, even a fireplace or wood-burning stove, that produces CO and is not properly vented can cause a build-up of CO in the home, shop or garage.

Running a car engine in an enclosed garage or shop can cause CO concentrations high enough to cause poisoning. Also, when your car idles outdoors, keep one or two windows slightly open, especially in the winter when the car's exhaust pipe may become blocked by ice or snow from a heavy snowfall or by a passing snowplow. If you can smell exhaust, you are inhaling CO and need to seek fresh air.

Never use a portable generator inside the home or basement, even if windows are open, or garage or shop. Never operate a portable generator inside any enclosed or semi-enclosed structure, such as a crawlspace, garage or porch. A portable generator should always be placed outside and away from windows and doors of any nearby building, the farther the better. One study demonstrated that 15 feet was not far enough to prevent a build-up of CO inside the home.

Never barbecue or grill with briquets inside. Burning charcoal, and smoking cigarettes and cigars also produces carbon monoxide gas.

Fuel-powered tools and equipment, such as lawn mowers, snow blowers, chain saws and pressure-washers, emit CO fumes. Never start or operate these devices in an enclosed space such as a garage or shop.

Response to symptoms

At the first hint of symptoms, move quickly to fresh air. Don't wait for more severe symptoms to develop.

If you suspect that someone else is suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, call 911 immediately. DO THAT FIRST.

If possible, move an unconscious victim to an area with fresh air. BE CAUTIOUS: Remember that the high levels of carbon monoxide that are making the other person sick can make you sick, too, even before you can bring the victim to safety.

What's next

The prognosis for a CO poisoning victim depends on the severity of carbon monoxide poisoning. Among people with severe symptoms, as many as two out of three people may have long-term complications, especially neurological problems.

In people with mild to moderate symptoms, as many as one in five can develop lasting neurological problems ranging from mild personality changes to severe intellectual impairment, blindness and deafness.

In pregnant women, CO poisoning can affect not only the mother, but can cause fetal death or cerebral palsy in the child.


Follow all safety precautions about what to burn safely where.

Have heating sources checked by professionals, and chimneys and stove pipes cleaned regularly.

Install carbon monoxide alarms on all levels of the home, in the basement near the furnace and/or gas clothes dryer, and near all sleeping areas on any level.

And remember, the fire chiefs want them in garages and workshops.

Carbon monoxide alarms get the best reading when they are placed five feet from the floor.

Every fuel-burning appliance, equipment or vehicle in the home, garage and shop produces some level of carbon monoxide. Normally, these gasses are carried safely out of the home or structure, but if something goes pear-shaped, a CO leak can be a health risk or life-threatening.

Place the alarms:

On the recommendation of fire chiefs, in every garage and workshop, in every room.

On every level of the home, especially the basement if that is where the furnace and water heater are located.

Five feet off the floor, for the best reading of the air quality of the room, hallway, shop or garage.

Close enough to every bedroom so that the alarm can wake up everyone in the night.

Follow the manufacturer's recommendation for correct placement from fireplaces, gas stoves, gas furnaces, gas water heaters, etc.

Inside the home near the door to an attached garage.

Do not place them:

In extremely close proximity to a fuel-burning appliance.

In excessively humid areas such as the bathroom.

In direct sunlight.

Near any sources of blowing air, such as a fan, vent, air conditioner or open window.

Carbon monoxide monitors

Carbon monoxide alarms sound when there is a dangerous amount of CO.

However, long-term exposure to low levels of CO can be as dangerous as short-term exposure to high levels quickly, and a carbon monoxide monitor continually monitors the amount of CO in the air and produce a digital readout. This lets a homeowner know when there are higher-than-usual amounts of CO, even if they aren't at what alarms read as "dangerous" levels.

Carbon monoxide monitors can be used in conjunction with carbon monoxide alarms.

Carbon monoxide detectors can provide a peace of mind in homes with young children and elderly people as they are more susceptible to CO poisoning.

CO monitor systems can be expensive, and installing less-expensive CO alarms is better than no protection at all.

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